For many generations, Kung Fu and Wuxia films weren’t really looked at with much respect in the west. Either because of good old fashion racism or a lack of cultural understanding, critics and audiences didn’t treat martial arts films with the respect they deserved. Bruce Lee may have popularized Chinese Kung Fu in the 70s and Jackie Chan was certainly making waves in Hollywood during the 90s (nearly 20 years into his career), but this genre of film hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream consciousness just yet.
That all changed with Ang Lee’s 2000 masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Stunning everyone, Crouching Tiger had become the first foreign-language film to be nominated for 10 awards at the Oscars in 2001. It was a runaway box-office smash that made nearly 20 times its budget back in gross and immediately catapulted stars Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi into worldwide mega-stardom. It completely changed the landscape of foreign releases in the US from being simply arthouse exclusives to something more appealing to the mainstream. It’s hard to overstate how important the legacy of this film is.
In retrospect, a lot of the praise the film gets is simply a case of “right place, right time.” That isn’t to say Crouching Tiger is bad: I actually believe it is far from it. The movie isn’t necessarily Ang Lee’s best film, but you only need to look at the reception from its homeland to see that Chinese audiences weren’t as kind to the mixture of eastern and western philosophies that the film portrayed. A lot of Chinese critics and audiences were upset with the various accents and the “lackluster” action sequences.
But let’s not mix in commercial reception with this retrospective. It’s mainly curious to note that for as well renowned as Crouching Tiger might be, not everyone believes it is a flawless film. Opinions on the movie have changed back and forth over the years and I’m of the mindset that most of the film is very good. The middle drags, but coming into it with an adult mind has revealed a lot.
I actually completely missed the initial craze over Crouching Tiger back in late 2000 since I was only 12 years old and obsessed with video games. To me, the biggest thing that year was the brand new Legend of Zelda video game and I hadn’t yet taken the plunge into martial arts cinema. I had been practicing Karate, but that was basically the extent of my knowledge.
I first was introduced to Ang Lee’s Wuxia epic in 2004 by some high school friends. After taking a keen interest in movies like Master of the Flying Guillotine and Enter the Dragon, I was quickly introduced to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the rest is kind of history. I was pretty blown away by the acrobatic prowess of its stars and I began to seek out other films with Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi.
I had read some of the reviews and generally agreed with the “masterpiece” angle, but I was never quite able to figure out why. As a burgeoning critic, my mind hadn’t yet set on thematic importance or shot composition. I just liked watching the intense action and solid acting. For as unrealistic as Wuxia might be with its flying practitioners and mystical weapons, Crouching Tiger felt like it struck a good balance between fantasy and reality.
As I can now see, that assumption is still pretty accurate. What makes the film so memorable and engaging isn’t just the fight choreography by the acclaimed Yuen Woo-ping, but how Ang Lee managed to weave his story of societal values, teenage romance and failed ambition directly into the action sequences. Maybe they aren’t the most off-the-wall battles you’ll ever witness, but each fight is packed to the brim with thematic importance that is practically unparalleled to this day.
The basic plot of Crouching Tiger is that swordmaster Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is returning to Beijing to gift the legendary Green Destiny sword to benefactor Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Having felt that he wasted his life in the pursuit of revenge, Mu Bai now wants to reunite with his lost love Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and start the life he mistakenly left behind. As fate would have it, the nefarious Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei) is seen in the area and this sparks Mu Bai into one final mission to avenge the death of his master.
While all of this is going on, a young woman named Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is set to be married off to a rich aristocrat and is becoming frustrated in her life. Wishing to be a warrior like Shu Lien and Mu Bai, she attempts to steal the Green Destiny and tries to keep her secret identity hidden from her father and the world. She’s also struggling with her past in the arms of Lo (Chang Chen), a bandit ruler that gave her a taste of freedom.
It takes a while for the parallel to become clear, but Crouching Tiger shows the juxtaposition of long love versus restraint. Jen and Lo are too young to understand how their actions are hurting others around them and are constantly fighting against what society expects from them. Jen simply wants to be a warrior queen and master of martial arts and eventually isn’t afraid of letting anyone know that. On the flip side, Mu Bai and Shu Lien have too much respect for each other and are afraid to share their love. It’s like Yin and Yang battling against each other.
In Jen, Mu Bai sees the student he never had. Her skill is beyond compare and even surpasses that of her master, Jade Fox. She’s still untrained and doesn’t quite grasp the full knowledge of the techniques of the Wudan Temple, but Mu Bai is willing to guide her and fulfill his wasted life by passing on his knowledge. This eventually fails as Jen strays farther and farther from the path of righteousness, eventually dueling Shu Lien in a climactic battle that serves as the absolute highlight of the film.
It’s surprising how weighty Crouching Tiger really is. Ang Lee may not have rewritten the rulebook on how to produce a Wuxia movie, but he gave it the budget and attention to detail it never quite had. Exquisite framing, excellent direction, and a magnificent score by acclaimed musician Tan Dun are all icing on the cake that is this movie.
I’m also surprised at how comedic the movie can be at times. For as serious as the plot might sound, the writing can be self-aware of how absurd some of the sequences are. When Jen is attempting to escape from her initial encounter with Mu Bai, he cuts her off and scares her with, “Had enough flying?” At another point, Jen returns the Green Destiny only to steal it a second time and Sir Te responds, “Has my home become a warehouse? They keep taking the sword and putting it back.”
Later on in the film, Jen flees with the Green Destiny and is traveling the land as a wandering swordsman. After knocking some thugs around, she enters a teahouse and basically reenacts classic Kung Fu movies. While the time period doesn’t lineup for that, you can tell Ang Lee was making reference to films such as The Prodigal Son and Drunken Master II with her reckless nature and total destruction. The final shot pans back to see her looking on at the carnage before a small bridge collapses in the middle. It’s perfect timing that completely sells the goofy nature of that particular encounter.
The film may ultimately end as a tragedy, but Ang Lee was well aware of how to express the complex nature of human emotion. All of Crouching Tiger’s subjects are well-rounded citizens that are battling with some kind of internal strife. It might come out in the form of high-flying Kung Fu brawls, but you certainly can’t say this movie isn’t a rollercoaster of emotions. You’ll be intrigued, scared, laughing, then crying all by the time the movie ends.
The only segment I feel where this pacing fails is directly in the middle. As Jen is reflecting on her life, that’s when we learn of her past with Lo and it goes on for roughly 25 minutes. Their story is also quite tragic, but explaining it all brings the rest of the movie crawling to a halt. It also relegates Jade Fox to the background and putting Cheng Pei-Pei away for half of the movie is a sin. It’s the one moment where I feel that the metaphors and poetic language of the film become too much and I wish it was shortened.
Other than that, I really don’t know what else to say about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Most people have likely seen the movie due to its popularity, but sometimes massively successful and well-known films gain that status for a simple reason: they really are just that good. Perhaps it has become a bit acceptable to bash the movie for some of its shortcomings, but I’m still impressed with everything Ang Lee managed to accomplish with this film.
Even if it were somehow a complete dud, Crouching Tiger will always be responsible for bridging the gap between the Chinese film industry and Hollywood that can be felt to this day. Without it, I wouldn’t be here writing about Kung Fu movies for you to enjoy. If that doesn’t sell you on its quality, then nothing will.
February’s Feature: Enter The Dragon
March’s Feature: Come Drink With Me
April’s Feature: The Prodigal Son
May’s Feature: 7 Grandmasters
June’s Feature: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
July’s Feature: The Big Boss